Cheap, quick & good: but can you have all three?

Here’s a very valuable lesson I learned from a former boss – and I mean literally valuable, worth money – about how to haggle over three aspects of a project. Our clients at the ad agency where I worked typically wanted every job done to the highest possible standard, in the shortest possible time – and at the lowest possible cost. N.B. this was Singapore and haggling was expected; even so clients could be very demanding.

Whenever this request was made, Rick would grab pen and paper and draw what I’ve come to call his ‘magic triangle’. I saw Rick draw his magic triangle many times, and every time the way he made his case was the same. “You can have cheap, you can have good, you can have quick – but you can’t have all three.”

He would then outline why this was so. “If you want good and quick, it’s going to cost you. If you want cheap and quick, it won’t be good. If you want cheap and good, it will take time. You can’t have all three. So which do you want?”

Rick would circle each of the three elements and ask the client very directly which one they’d be prepared to sacrifice. This always worked; sometimes the reaction was a ‘here he goes again’ laugh, particularly from senior clients who’d seen the magic triangle routine before. Sometimes I saw people actually copy the triangle into their notebook, nodding at Rick’s wisdom as they did so (I waited until safely back in my office before doing that).

Those who’d seen it all before would sometimes feign exasperation and say yes, yes, they knew all about the triangle but they still wanted all three (dammit). To which Rick would smile and respond that these were enduring principles and as they’d apparently been forgotten, he thought it wise to draw his triangle again. And it worked.

Rick’s magic triangle evidently is an enduring principle: I still use it now in workshops when participants ask what on earth they can do when they have clients who expect all three elements, served on a plate – beautifully, cheaply and rapidly, of course. Following up with them afterwards it’s very gratifying to hear that the magic triangle has yet again saved the day.

There’s something else I’ve realised about the way Rick did this: it’s not just the concept of the three elements that endures, but the practice of drawing it, the better to explain and discuss it. The power of visualising your line of argument is too often overlooked, particularly when the going gets tough. If you need a primer I highly recommend Kevin Duncan’s ‘The Diagrams Book: 50 Ways to Solve Any Problem Visually’, available on Amazon.

You may also find this blog post useful: ‘Be a better negotiator – starting today’

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’



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